Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe 
by Thomas Ertman.
Cambridge, 379 pp., £45, April 1997, 0 521 48222 4
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For nearly a millennium, European states have been at war with one another. For as Hobbes observed, war

consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known ... For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.

European states have known no ‘assurance to the contrary’, for there has been no ‘power able to overawe them all’. Thus war has been their chronic condition, their characteristic ‘posture’, as Hobbes again put it:

Kings, and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War.

Europe’s ‘thousand-years war’ has been not only the inescapable condition of the state, but the matrix of its development. War has produced the state as we know it today. The ‘posture of War’ has driven incipient and established states alike to increase their powers, extend their competencies, centralise their operations, deepen their penetration of social life, and enlarge and rationalise their apparatuses of taxation, adjudication, regulation and surveillance. Refined in the crucible of war, the centralised, bureaucratic state first took a recognisably modern shape in 17th and 18th-century Europe and showed the rest of the world ‘the image of its own future’. As Charles Tilly has put it, ‘war made the state, and the state made war.’

But how (and when and where) did war make the state? This question is at the heart of Thomas Ertman’s challenging study. Historians and sociologists have treated Prussia as the paradigm of war-oriented state-building in Europe; yet the Prussian experience was far from typical. Elsewhere, in the Early Modern era, the planning, financing and fighting of war did not directly make the state; more often, as Ertman shows, it made a mess – particularly in the domain of public finance and administrative structures.

Throughout ‘Latin Europe’ – in the Iberian peninsula and Italy, and especially in France up to the eve of the Revolution – the most striking effect of war, and of the urgent need for large sums of ready cash that it occasioned, was not to consolidate and rationalise the state administration, or to make it more efficient and ‘modern’, like the ideal bureaucracy famously described by Max Weber. The effect was rather to irrationalise it, to foster an ever more baroque state edifice built on the shaky foundations of proprietary office-holding, tax farming and other forms of private ‘appropriation’ of public powers. Ertman sharply distinguishes the resulting ‘patrimonial absolutism’ from the ‘bureaucratic absolutism’ of the German territorial states, and seeks to explain these differing paths in terms of a geopolitically determined ‘latecomer’s advantage’ enjoyed by the latter.

In the 12th and 13th centuries sustained military competition led the territorial rulers of Latin Europe to construct ‘complex, specialised state infrastructures’. They drew on ecclesiastical models of large-scale governance, notably on the institution of the benefice, in which notions of public office and private property were fused. And they relied for cash on tax farmers and ‘officeholder-financiers’, a dependence that similarly blurred the public-private distinction. Impressively sophisticated and effective at their inception, these administrative arrangements had become anachronistic by the Early Modern era. Yet strong vested interests made them highly resistant to later attempts at reform. By contrast, pressure to build substantial translocal state apparatuses was put on German territorial rulers only after the mid-15th century. They were then able to draw on new organisational models, legal concepts, financial techniques and expert personnel (especially university-trained jurists) to build ‘proto-modern bureaucracies based upon the separation of office from the person of the officeholder’.

The link between the waging of war and the making of the modern state was even more attenuated on the eastern periphery of ‘western Christendom’. Poland and Hungary were never absolutist. With few and temporary exceptions, would-be centralising rulers proved helpless in the face of concerted resistance from the nobility, who early monopolised effective authority at the level of the county. They then used their strong position in cohesive national assemblies to extract further concessions from weak monarchs, even in the face of grave military threat, and to enhance their legal privileges and economic dominance. The resulting ‘patrimonial constitutionalist’ states proved unable to defend or to reorganise themselves. Weakened by a series of military defeats, thrice-partitioned Poland finally disappeared from the map of Europe at the end of the 18th century. Hungary, for its part, was crushed by Ottoman armies in the early 16th century, and partially occupied by them for a century and a half; it survived thereafter only by being incorporated as a self-governing unit into the Habsburg Empire, benefiting from Habsburg military protection but successfully resisting administrative rationalisation.

As anomalous exemplars of what might be called ‘state-unbuilding’, Poland and Hungary have been conveniently ignored by most historians and theorists. England/Britain has been harder to ignore, but it, too, has been portrayed as anomalous, or at least exceptional, vis-à-vis patterns prevailing on the Continent. It figures scarcely at all, for example, in Gianfranco Poggi’s excellent Development of the Modern State. The idioms of Whig historiography have long been superseded; but traces remain of its central equation between being in the vanguard of liberty and the rearguard of bureaucratic state-building. More self-consciously ‘hard-headed’ accounts, too, have emphasised Britain’s weak and non-bureaucratic state, seeing its sources in the country’s geographically protected position and precociously commercialised economy. The former allowed Britain to rely on naval power in place of a standing army; the latter to tax and borrow easily. Britain was thus able to do without the large bureaucracies that developed on the Continent in order to extract less readily available resources and to co-ordinate and finance standing armies.

Nearly a decade ago, in The Sinews of Power, John Brewer undermined the foundations of this view of British exceptionalism with his portrait of an 18th-century British state that was, in key respects, large, strong, militarised, modern and highly bureaucratic. The British Navy, no less than Continental standing armies, required a large and sophisticated bureaucracy to support it; and commerce in Britain, no less than land on the Continent, required a large and sophisticated bureaucracy to tax it. Building on Brewer (and pushing the argument about bureaucratic administration further than Brewer himself would), Ertman sees in Britain’s ‘bureaucratic constitutionalism’ a pioneer, not a laggard, in the development of the modern state.

It was, moreover, precisely the financial and organisational exigencies of war, especially during the period of renewed entanglement in European power politics after 1689, that drove the British state in this modernising direction. In 18th-century Britain, to a greater extent than France or even Prussia (whose archaic systems of public finance, taxation and credit were no match for Britain’s), war did make the modern state.

Thus the war-driven road to the modern state was not a royal highway but a branching series of by-ways, many of which turned out to be dead-ends. The burden of the past weighed heavily on states; institutions and practices established – and effective – at one moment limited options later on, and ultimately imperilled the state’s survival. Proprietary officeholding in France, untrammelled aristocratic privilege and immunity in Poland and Hungary, the coercive system of taxation and finance in Prussia – these entrenched patterns were eventually overcome only by revolution in France and Hungary, by military collapse and near-revolutionary reconstruction in Prussia and by death and ‘resurrection’ (as nationalists liked to put it) in Poland.

Ertman’s core concern leads him into a broader analysis of European state formation over the longue durée. He breaks with the prevailing practice of addressing a single contrast – e.g. between Continental absolutism and British constitutionalism – to explore a dual contrast: between absolutist and constitutional regimes, on the one hand, and bureaucratic and patrimonial forms of administration, on the other. These need not go hand in hand: absolutism (as the French example shows) need not involve bureaucracy, while constitutionalism (as the British example shows) need not involve its absence. Ertman thus sees four basic patterns: patrimonial absolutism in Latin Europe, bureaucratic absolutism in the German states and Denmark, patrimonial constitutionalism in Poland and Hungary, and bureaucratic constitutionalism in Britain and Sweden. (He excludes from his analysis city-states and Swiss and Dutch confederal polities).

What explains these differing patterns? Ertman highlights three factors. The first is the organisation of local government in the earliest phase of state-building. Following Otto Hintze, he observes that cohesive, participatory self-government at county level developed only on the fringes of the former Carolingian empire – in England, Scotland, Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary. In the core territories of the defunct Empire, by contrast, feudal fragmentation destroyed the older county organisations and centralising rulers, in their struggle against entrenched local élites, later reconstructed local government in top-down, non-participatory fashion. This difference, according to Ertman, had far-reaching consequences. Above all, it determined how the statewide representative assemblies that arose in the high and late Middle Ages would be organised. In the peripheral countries, they were organised along territorial lines. Uniting members of different orders, and rooted in strong local self-government, such assemblies were able to resist rulers’ attempts to monopolise power and so prevented the development of absolutism. In the former Carolingian heartlands of European feudalism, by contrast, they were organised along status group rather than territorial lines, with separate chambers for each order or ‘estate’. Such assemblies were structurally much weaker and unable to prevent absolutism.

The second factor I have already mentioned: the timing of states’ initial encounters with sustained geopolitical competition. On Ertman’s account, this explains why German rulers, pressed to build state infrastructures several centuries after their French counterparts, were able to develop proto-modern bureaucracies. The final factor is the influence of representative assemblies in constitutionalist regimes. In Poland and Hungary, powerful national assemblies were in place before the development of substantial administrative infrastructures. When sustained military competition induced rulers to try to develop such infrastructures, the magnate-dominated assemblies were able to block these initiatives and to preserve and even strengthen their local power bases. In Britain, by contrast, a substantial and remarkably centralised administration was constructed two hundred years before the emergence of Parliament in the 13th century. Unable to block state-building altogether, Parliament sought instead to reform the central administration, consistently combating proprietary officeholding and tax farming – ultimately succeeding in the late 17th century.

Ertman concludes by asking what ‘lessons’ the European experience holds for the present. This might be thought a curious question, yet it is not as far-fetched as it might seem. For state-building – although Ertman himself does not go into this theme – is once again an urgent theoretical and practical concern. The post-Cold War moment of triumphant anti-statism has passed. As Stephen Holmes has forcefully argued, it is not the omnipotence of the state, but its impotence, that threatens the basic rights and well-being of citizens in Russia today. The ‘withering away of the state’ has meant the withering away of state capacities to provide the most elementary public goods and services. Neo-liberals increasingly concede what paleo-liberals knew all along: a strong, even powerful state is a precondition for everything they hold dear, including the orderly working of markets and the protection of human rights.

The force of renewed calls for a ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’ state depends of course on how we understand these terms. Here Michael Mann’s distinction between ‘despotic’ and ‘infrastructural’ power is helpful, the former denoting an arbitrary power over civil society, the latter the power of state institutions to co-ordinate and regulate social life by working through civil society. Despotically ‘strong’ states may be infrastructurally ‘weak’, and vice versa. What is urgently needed in Russia today – and throughout the ex-Communist bloc and the Third World – is an infrastructurally strong state, one that can keep the peace, punish force and fraud, enforce contracts, collect taxes, provide basic services, protect public health, implement legislation, and prevent the plundering of the land and its people by criminal and quasi-criminal networks.

The sobering lesson of Ertman’s book is how hard it is to construct such states, and how vulnerable they are once constructed. We often speak of the ‘rise’ of the modern state, as if, like the middle classes, represented as ever-rising in the West since the 12th century or so, it were riding some inevitable upward trajectory. But the modern state did not ‘rise’, it was made, over long periods, with much backsliding and against sustained resistance, not least from those who stood to reap private profit from public office. It is still being made, and unmade, today. The making of an infrastructurally strong but despotically weak state is anything but assured.

In the course of Europe’s thousand-years war, sustained military competition eventually led to the weeding out of the most blatant forms of patrimonial administration. Today, however, pressures to reform conspicuously corrupt, grossly inefficient state administrations are much weaker. States continue to make war, but war no longer makes states the way it used to. There are now a growing number of what Robert Jackson has called ‘quasi-states’, organisations that are internationally recognised as ‘states’ yet fail to do the most elementary things states are supposed to do, such as maintaining order throughout a given territory. Today, such quasi-states can continue to exist with little chance that they will go out of business. Their continued existence, irrespective of their abysmal performance, is underwritten by the reification and sacralisation of existing state borders in international discourse and practice. In these circumstances, Ertman’s ‘overriding lesson’ – that effective state-building requires, ‘right from the start’, both a strong centre and cohesive, broadly participatory local government – reads like a counsel of despair.

This densely argued book is not easy going; it commands respect rather than inspires affection. (Here it mirrors its subject: as Machiavelli observed, it is better for the state-building prince to be feared than loved.) Yet this is a large and important book on a large and important subject, one firmly inscribed in a tradition of broad-based, comparative inquiry into the making of the modern state that began with Weber and Hintze at the turn of the century and has been revived in the last quarter-century by Perry Anderson, Tilly, Mann, Stein Rokkan and others. With Birth of Leviathan, Ertman joins them.

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